Emily Chan and Maria Hupfield
Emily Chan and Maria Hupfield

Walking and Talking Treaties: The Power of Students’ Inquiry in Deepening the Social Studies Curriculum

Emily Chan

the students.

Teaching within a social justice framework means being purposeful about revealing ties that weave our personal identities, ancestries and stories with those of the world, historical or contemporary. As part of Walking and Talking Treaties, each student interviewed a family member for a story of immigration, settlement or coming of age. The students embraced each other’s stories; non-Indigenous students felt closer to their own families’ journeys.

“I now know how my grandma and grandpa met,” shared Cleo, in grade 4.

Rafaele, also in grade 4, explained, “My dad was picked on as an immigrant. It was hard for him to fit in. This connects to Indigenous experiences because settlers thought Indigenous people didn’t belong here. Settlers acted racist towards a lot of people.”

The students made family banners that hung around the classroom interspersed with a timeline of colonization and other significant events in Canadian history.

“While the kids went to residential schools, grownups were building the railway,” noted Riel, while reading the timeline up in our classroom. Larkin was affirmed in her mixed heritage. “It helped me learn about both sides of my family, Irish and Anishinaabe.”

“To Remember Everything We Learned”

Working closely with several Jumblies Theatre artists over two months, the students designed, embroidered and sewed a pair of felt shoes by hand. The students’ ‘little shoes’ were a creative representation of their understanding our studies. One shoe represented the student’s learning about Indigenous history and experience with treaties and the second portrayed their own family’s history.

The shoes about the students’ ancestries included embroidery designs with themes of war, migration, comfort foods, national flags, symbols and celebrations. Medicine wheels, poppies, Turtle Island, fire, schools, wampum, scrolls, the sun and feathers, and were symbolic of the students’ learning of Aboriginal history and experiences with treaties. When the shoes were complete, Jumblies Theatre artists filmed our last walking trip on Spadina Avenue to place our shoes on the rocks of the memorial and, as Miriam, in grade 6, explained, “to remember everything we learned.” The art exhibit included this video footage, as well as fabric hangings featuring the students’ insights during our studies.

Walking and Talking Treaties was made possible by the generosity, vision and tireless efforts by all the artists and parents involved. Artist Maria Hupfield provided guidance on the initiative’s curriculum, helped to secure project funding, served as our main partner with Images Festival and created fabric hangings featuring quotes by our students as a backdrop for their shoes. I was elated that most of the class attended the art opening with their parents, siblings and grandparents. Seeing the students’ happy smiles with noses pressed against the display of their artwork in a prominent gallery was exhilarating. After the event Maria commented, “It truly was a delight to be surrounded by families, Native community members and artists from the neighborhood throughout the evening. In my experience, it is rare for these worlds to connect, making this a true celebration and one I am proud to be a part of.”

Classroom to Community: Making Treaty Education Meaningful

The scope of Walking and Talking Treaties came about from my collaborations with community partners, but such a project could be possible in different contexts. The value of featuring the students’ artwork in the community was tremendous. Bridging the students’ creative and learning process between the classroom and community could take place in any number of ways. A school gym, school board event, neighbourhood centre or library could host this type of culminating activity. It is vital for artists and Indigenous educators to be funded to work in schools. Toronto’s Aboriginal Education Centre functions to help teachers create inclusive environments for Indigenous students in our schools, and all students learn our diverse and linked histories. By reaching out to such departments across our school districts, we create a demand for Aboriginal resource people, elders, traditional teachers, artists and others who are well versed in Indigenous histories and cultures, to partner with teachers in promoting this learning. Collaborating with Aboriginal community members is essential when presenting Indigenous knowledge to ensure authenticity and to avoid cultural appropriation.

“Indigenize your social studies curriculum!” is the captivating title for a professional development workshop offered by the TDSB. Decolonising my teaching practice is not solely a personal choice. Eden’s question inspired my effort to do so. In 1989, when the Chinese Railway Workers memorial was built, Toronto’s Chinese Canadian community fought for it to be approved by the city. Such accomplishments are the stepping stones for us to commit to deepening the ties in our woven histories, making visible the relationships between Indigenous, settler and immigrant communities. Taking these steps forward is our responsibility as treaty peoples.


TDSB Aboriginal Education Centre:  tdsb.on.ca/community/aboriginaleducation.aspx
Treaty Recognition Week:  anishinabek.ca/educationresources/
Ontario’s Treaty Maps: ontario.ca/page/ontario-first-nations-maps
Multicultural History Society of Ontario: mhso.ca/tiesthatbind/
Horizon Treaty Education Project, “We are all treaty people”: youtube.com/watch?v=0HbAr5PC4pY
CBC 8th Fire “500 years in 2 minutes”: cbc.ca/8thfire/2011/11/its-time.html
Legacy of Treaties video by PSAC:  youtube.com/watch?v=r5DrXZUIinU
All My Father’s Relations: vimeo.com/152152089
First Story: Exploring Aboriginal History in Toronto: firststoryblog.wordpress.com/
Toronto’s Aboriginal Street Naming Project:  ogimaamikana.tumblr.com/
Native Canadian Centre:  ncct.on.ca/
Muskrat Magazine:  muskratmagazine.com/
Ontario Arts Council Indigenous Artists in Schools:  arts.on.ca/page2774.aspx
Maria Hupfield:  mariahupfield.wordpress.com/
Jumblies Theatre:  jumbliestheatre.org/

Thank you to Marianne Alas, Mackenzie Konecny, Parker Dirks and Ruth Howard, artists with Jumblies Theatre who were integral creative partners in this project. Photos by Liam Coo, Mackenzie Konecny, Emily Chan, Sheena Taylor, Aaron Mason.

Emily Chan is a member of the Elementary Teachers of Toronto. She is first generation Chinese Canadian, born and raised in Toronto. Walking and Talking Treaties was made possible with funding from the Ontario Arts Council.



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